BY Anne Hilde Neset in Features | 01 JUN 17
Featured in
Issue 188

Murky Music

Artist and singer Tori Wrånes articulates the weird interior of the self

BY Anne Hilde Neset in Features | 01 JUN 17

In a recent Norwegian TV series, Tori Wrånes is filmed preparing for a performance in Portland, Oregon. She is in a room full of props: silicone body parts such as outsized fake hands and noses, fake fur in abundance, costumes, stuffed trousers, long white synthetic hairpieces hanging on rods ready to be braided. She works intuitively, constructing the scene not with written scripts and storyboards, but by instinct. ‘Everything I make is about how I am doing right now and everything I’m wondering about right now’, she explains to the presenter as she busies herself instructing a group of actors and dancers. A glimpse of the performance is shown: the dancers, dressed in white fake-fur onesies, move slowly, crawling along the floor. Two stand up: on their heads are long synthetic white plaits, at the end of which is a small speaker. The pair start to swing their heads so that both plaits and speaker rotate making a droning sound, ominous like an air-raid siren. This provides the backdrop for Wrånes, dressed as a more elaborate furry creature and smeared with plaster, who sings and plays the flute lying down on the floor under a suspended microphone. Later in the programme, we see the artist, free of make-up and costume, slumped in an armchair. The interviewer approaches and tries to ask her what it might mean. ‘I can’t talk about it afterwards.’ It’s a poignant moment, her face is bare and tired, but her eyes are smiling. She has expressed everything she needed to; she is done.

Wrånes’s practice involves creating detailed and elaborate mythical environments, building creatures in spaces where her imagination can run riot. She is always at the centre of these surreal and theatrical settings, often surrounded by a cast of carefully instructed performers. But far from mere play-acting, her performances involve real acts of physical endurance.

Height and suspension are amongst her recurring themes. In 2010, she clung onto a grand piano attached to a vertiginous rock face in northern Norway’s scenic Lofoten islands. Hanging there, she sang a duet with the fog horn of a passenger ferry on the fjord below. In another performance, she played a piano placed high up on a wall, her body turned away from the audience to reveal a dripping prosthetic penis growing out of her back. A few months ago, she was lifted 40 metres off the ground by a crane before being lowered to lay the foundation stone of Norway’s forthcoming National Museum, in front of a crowd of dignitaries including members of the Norwegian royal family. She sang as she swung, carrying the stone in a rucksack, dressed angelically in white, her voice thrown around by giant suspended speakers. One of the agenda points from the ceremony planning meetings began: ‘In case of death …’ Wrånes puts everything on the line in her work.

Tori Wrånes, The Singer, 2014–16, installation view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo, 2017. Courtesy: the artist, Carl Freedman Gallery, London, and the National Museum, Oslo; photograph: Frode Larsen

Those same cranes perform their jerky jive above our heads when I visit the artist in her temporary studio next to the building site. She is busy working on ‘Hot Pocket’, her first large-scale solo show in Oslo, at the Museum of Contemporary Art. She was given free rein in the building, and has chosen to make a site-specific show with almost all new work. This will be the last exhibition in the old building before it is emptied of art and re-opened as something else. She explains that she will transform the entire ground-floor gallery into the fur-lined stomach of an animal. Inside, an invisible bird will fly around, the beating of its wings made audible through a surround-sound speaker system, as it flies past 3D-printed sculptures, made from scans of dancers. A rising and falling interior glow will indicate whether it’s day or night in this furry universe. In the centre of all this will be a large revolving circular stage, the setting for a number of performances where Wrånes has invited other artists and musicians to respond to the space.

For all the hyper-theatricality of Wrånes’s imagery, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of sound in her work. She has studied music, played in several jazz, folk and rock groups, and received vocal training from Norwegian jazz singer and improviser Sidsel Endresen. Her works are as much composed as they are staged, and she often refers to her performances as concerts. Besides developing her own vocals, Wrånes instructs and spatially arranges large musical ensembles and choirs. The acoustic properties of a space and the design of her sound worlds are key factors in her practice, as are the emotional aspects of improvisation. The voice can, after all, draw the inside outwards and is the most direct means of expressing the self. In a 1939 interview, Billie Holiday said of vocal improvisation: ‘I don’t think I’m singing; I feel like I’m playing a horn. I try to improvise like Les Young, like Louis Armstrong or someone else I admire. What comes out is what I feel.’1

The American experimental vocalist Joan La Barbara explored voice and emotion in her 1974 piece Hear What I Feel. After spending an hour in isolation with her eyes taped shut, she was led into a performance space. A variety of substances in small glass dishes were placed before her and, as she touched the different materials, she gave an intuitive response, voicing what she felt both emotionally and physically.

A similar type of non-verbal communication is a recur­ring feature of Wrånes’s work. The cumulative effect of song, movement and invented language, costumes and elaborate sets, creates a dream logic in which she plays out a psychodrama of self. This scenario is partly an expression of the unconscious and partly a display of an internal otherness, which can’t be articulated in conventional language. With her voice amplified, every hesitation or vocal stumble is exaggerated. The process is raw and unforgiving: as revealing as a bout of psychotherapy. And what is a psychoanalyst if not a receiving apparatus, which plays back our emotions to us, like a microphone connected to a sound system? The writer and music journalist Ian Penman has described how it functions as a substitute therapist: ‘The microphone stands in for the analyst’s calm, promiscuous ear: neutral, forgiving, open to everything, the slightest trace or stammer or spoken mark. What we hear plucked out of the air sounds like outposts of innermost feeling – an outposting of our intangible inner murk.’2 Outposts of innermost feeling might be a perfect description of Wrånes’s fantastical universe.

Tori Wrånes, The Opposite Is Also True 2, 2012, performance documentation at Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo. Courtesy: the artist and Carl Freedman Gallery, London; photograph: Emil Anderson

On Australia’s Cockatoo Island for the Biennale of Sydney in 2014, Wrånes enacted STONE and SINGER, a performance in which she appeared isolated in the space, a large boulder swinging dangerously close to her head. Dressed in a troll costume and wearing a mask with wide eyes, she sung into a penis-shaped tail that concealed a microphone. On scaffolding all around her were an accompanying brass band and choir. It was a face-off between this mythical being and a tremendous deathly weight hovering above, between a yearning creature and the immense forces of gravity under which it cowered.

Trolls of all kinds recur in Wrånes’s work, and the artist transforms herself into various troll forms using silicone prosthetics to render numerous degrees of deformity. Norwegian folk tales frequently feature trolls and these unlikely creatures have become something of a national symbol, despite being primitive, greedy, dumb, ugly and selfish. They inhabit woods or dark caverns and their murky psyche is directly reflected in their ghastly appearance. By contrast, the creatures that appear in Wrånes’s performances are, according to the artist, ‘contemporary trolls’ who wear modern clothing and have nothing to do with national identity. They are gender-undefined, transnational beings that represent repressed emotion. In The Eccentrics – her performance at New York’s SculptureCenter last year – the artist appeared as a lone troll with giant silicone hands, playing a melancholic tune on an ancient wooden flute. Wearing white Reeboks on her feet, she buzzed around on a hoverboard. Wrånes argues that we are all fragile, complex beings situated in a consumerist, conformist and hypernormative world. We need to rehumanize our inner trolls – our internal weirdness – if we are to be truly inclusive of diversity.

The artist’s 2014 performance, Your Next Vacation Is Calling, was a turning point in her use of trolls and voice. She designed an entire room, which she has described as a 3D abstract painting, with walls clad in paint and lumpy plaster. Covered in white paint and wearing a white wig, with parts of her face encased in silicone and clad like the walls, Wrånes moved in a set-up reminiscent of a circuit-training class, with each station demanding a different physical exertion. A handful of actors, in similar costumes, moved in ways vaguely reminiscent of push-ups and squats. One station saw Wrånes singing while running on a treadmill, to explore what happens to the voice when you are out of breath. ‘My voice is just another material, like paint, and it’s about setting the material free, about disengaging the head’, she explains. ‘It was so demanding to instruct all the dancers and actors and, at the end of it, I appeared on this sofa placed on a wall and I was completely beat. My head stopped.’ And that’s when another language, another speaking pattern, just came rolling off her tongue: ‘So le mo la me li, lua assubiliong, haw haw haw …’ The artist refers to it as her troll language and it has its own inner logic through which she can express – to borrow a phrase from Penman – her intangible inner murk. ‘It was like pushing a button and it just flowed out. And it was complete. I can lose everything else but the voice is always there. It’s a material I will always have.’

As her use of the treadmill indicates, Wrånes is keen to push her body to extremes. Athletic exertion is important in her performances, and there is an element of courage, of giving a show your all and being in the moment, in touch with every muscle. Despite this emphasis on physical endurance, the artist’s performances feel far removed from the 1970s body art exemplified by Marina Abramovic, Chris Burden and Carolee Schneemann. For Wrånes, exertion is less about enduring pain and more about energetic euphoria and presence. Her work asks: ‘What can my body do? What happens to our minds when we put our body under extreme strain? Does another subconscious self emerge?’ And it’s not so much about her body or her physical feats. Wrånes’s furry costumes, prosthetics and wigs play into a broader narrative about shape-shifting, building characters and subverting conventions – be they gravitational, physical, visual or vocal.

Wrånes loves sport, especially handball, which is hugely popular in Norway. She spent most of her childhood playing it and had ambitions to join the country’s national women’s team. ‘It was either sport or art,’ she says. ‘Sport’s so much about collaboration, choreography: Where can I go? Where is there a space? It’s about looking for patterns, moving together, making something happen. It’s much like music. The handball is covered in sticky adhesive: it’s hard; it’s soft; it produces a rhythmic sound; it slams into the net; the audience shouts; there’s the opportunity of working with great people.’

1 Referenced in John Szwed’s Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, 2015, Viking, New York
2 Ian Penman, ‘On The Mic’, first published in The Wire, issue 182, April 1999

Main image: Tori Wrånes, Track of Horns, 2015, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Carl Freedman Gallery, London; photograph: Jochen Unterhofer

Anne Hilde Neset is a writer and the director of Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, Norway.